(3 out of 4 stars)
Written by Emma Donoghue. Songs by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph. Directed by Cora Bissett. Through May 8, 2022, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W., mirvish.com and 1-800-461-3333.
A mother. His son. Their unbreakable bond.
That’s the heart of “Room,” Emma Donoghue’s poignant stage adaptation of her acclaimed novel that is boldly brought to life in director Cora Bissett’s visually arresting production.
It follows a young woman, known simply as Ma (Stratford Festival mainstay Alexis Gordon), who is abducted as a teenager and held captive in a dilapidated garden shed for seven years. She shares this space – where she is raped, beaten and abused by her captor – with her son Jack (Lucien Duncan-Reid on opening night, who alternates with Levi Dombokah), who is about to turn five. years. Without any knowledge of what lies beyond those cork-covered walls, the room is his world – his inanimate contents are his friends.
Ma’s love for her son is extremely clear. She conjures up a mythical story to explain her seemingly inexplicable life. And every night, when their captor enters their quarters, she hides Jack in a wardrobe, where its wide wooden slats hide the painful truths of their existence. She alone bears the trauma, the pain, the burden.
The emotional resonance of their relationship — its joys, its heartbreaks, and the unwavering strength they draw from each other’s being — is what drives “Room” soaring.
Like the novel, the theatrical adaptation is primarily told from Jack’s perspective. We see his world through his eyes. Andrzej Goulding’s stunning projection design animates Jack’s pencil drawings and brings his inanimate friends to life. These visual depictions of her unbridled imagination are juxtaposed with the mundane cruelty of her life in a sweltering shed, rendered with brutal realism in Lily Arnold’s rotating set.
Serious and never sickening, Duncan-Reid is on stage for most of the play and walks through young Jack’s journey with conviction. It’s a shame Donoghue decided to split the character in two, diluting Jack’s emotional richness and blurring the chemistry between him and Ma. Shadowing Jack is his alter ego, SuperJack (played by adult Brandon Michael Arrington), who delivers much of the character’s exposition-heavy monologues, which, while faithful to the first-person narration of the source material, end up getting bogged down in this stage adaptation.
As Ma, Gordon’s performance is nothing short of a triumph, a deft portrayal that captures both the psychological torment of captivity and her character’s gentle nature as Jack’s mother. As the curtain rises, Gordon’s Ma doesn’t come across as a woman who’s been locked up for much of her young adult life. Her cheerful-eyed smile lights up the room; she is the light of Jack’s life. But in fleeting moments, as she begins to hatch a plan to escape, her seemingly unfazed veneer begins to crack.
In these cases, the character transcends reality and begins to sing. Billed as a “game with music”, the production is punctuated by several songs by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, which, though largely immemorial, effectively capture what cannot be said in Donoghue’s script (sometimes lacking the playful humor of his novel and the propulsive drive of his 2015 film script). Gordon’s finale in the first act, a helpless lament for Jack, coupled with Bonnie Beecher’s ingenious lighting design, is surprisingly moving.
The rest of the cast are uniformly superb, especially Ashley Wright as the vilely vile kidnapper and Tracey Ferencz and Stewart Arnott as Jack’s grandmother and grandfather, two roles more fully realized than in the novel. Shannon Taylor rounds out the business playing a cop, interviewer, and popcorn server.
It’s a small cast in an intimate production. Much of the first act plays out like a two-handed game. So that Mirvish decided to mount this production at the cavernous Princess of Wales Theater seems like a direct mistake. (Arnold’s three-wall set, in particular, creates poor sight lines; choose seats in the center, if possible.)
Still, “Room” still resonated widely with Thursday’s opening night audience. It’s hard to imagine, in an alternate universe where the pandemic never took hold, that “Room” would be as poignant as it is right now. Even though Ma’s experience is unfathomable for the most part, the play’s themes of isolation, grief, and hope seem particularly foreboding after two years of the pandemic.
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